Anyone who studies Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure will easily find “Love, Death, and Everything in Between”—the theme of the 2014 season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Measure for Measure offers audiences a feast of ironies on which to chew: love, lust, natural death, murders, executions, and nearly everything in between. Set in Vienna, Austria, the thematic heart of the play focuses on the kinds of justice and mercy that Catholic religious leaders preached from the pulpit for centuries before Henry VIII challenged the sovereignty of the papacy. What ensues is a beguiling plot line with dramatic elements common to several other Shakespeare plays that include Catholic themes and characters, not typical of his time. Had he set any of these plays in England, Shakespeare would have been taking his life in his hands.
Between 1530 and 1604, the state religion of England vacillated between Roman Catholic to Protestant several times, beginning with the tumultuous reign of King Henry VIII. When the Pope refused to annul the marriage between Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the king established himself as the divine head of church and state in England. He established the Church of England (or Anglican Church), which became the only recognized—and legal—religion in the land. His first act of business was to divorce Catherine, so that he could marry Anne Bolyn in order to produce a male heir.
Once the Catholic Church no longer occupied status in England, its vast holdings needed to be dealt with. Therefore, King Henry asked Parliament to pass an act that allowed the state to seize hundreds of Catholic monasteries, abbeys and convents. This act served to replenish the British coffers, “the exhausted Exchequer.” Properties that had been owned by the Papacy for centuries contained needed furnishings, livestock, and crops worth millions of pounds sterling. Henry appointed his loyal friend Thomas Moore to confiscate all such lands and holdings between 1536 and 1538. Most of the buildings were dismantled, and their contents distributed among friends and family of the king. There is no way to know how much money and property were pinched in the process, but there is evidence that the practice was widespread.
Perhaps the most tragic victims of these raids were the thousands of displaced monks and nuns forced to flee their only homes. Many fled to other Catholic countries throughout Europe, while others went into hiding; indeed, some attempted to blend into newly-reformed Anglican communities. Not surprisingly, many former Catholic families throughout England aided these monks-and-nuns-on-the-run by providing shelter or by purchasing passage to France, or to other Catholic countries. According to many historians, William Shakespeare’s father, John, may well have been one such benefactor. As a successful businessman, he had both the means and the inclination to do so.
In the centuries since William Shakespeare’s death, historians have searched with a fine-tooth comb to prove the rumors that Shakespeare was born into a family of closet Catholics. Historian Stephen Greenblatt dedicated a major portion of his biography of Shakespeare to proving these rumors as fact. Although he fell short of his goal, Greenblatt made a strong case for his assertion that Shakespeare had vast knowledge of Catholicism because he had grown up in it(Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare [New York: Norton & Co, 2004]).
By the time Shakespeare began writing plays in the 1580s, Queen Elizabeth I had made great headway in arresting the problem of “closet Catholics” and those reluctant to embrace the tenets of the Church of England. Citizens who did not attend church services regularly were subject to fines and arrest. In fact, John Shakespeare once faced such charges for non-attendance, but the state dealt with him leniently because of his status in Stratford.
What does any of this biographical history have to do with Shakespeare’s plays?
The Elizabethan theatre serves to provide evidence of the culture from a unique period of history. Just as theatregoers “were able to learn about other places and other times” when they went to the first performances of Shakespeare’s plays, today’s theatregoers “are able to get a glimpse of another world when we study the work they left behind” (Yancey, Diane [Life of the Elizabethan Theater]). The issues of religion and politics were very real for a young William Shakespeare. Therefore, it would seem natural that the playwright would create characters based on people he had known from his youth.
According to Greenblatt, “Nothing in his work suggest a deep admiration for the visible church. Several of his conspicuously Catholic religious figures . . . are fundamentally sympathetic, but not because they are important figures in the church hierarchy. On the contrary, Shakespeare plays almost always depict powerful prelates as disagreeable,” and those lower figures (such as the Friar in Measure for Measure) as beneficent and merciful (111).
What real life connections existed between Elizabethan England and the theatre that sprang from that era? And how did Shakespeare capture the verisimilitude of religious intolerance and political instability?
Considering that times were dangerous for those who did not outwardly prove their devotion to the Anglican Church, students of Shakespeare may be surprised to see him doing just that. In fact, he openly mocks the rigid-minded Protestants known as Puritans (the ridiculously pious Malvolio in Twelfth Night). Shakespeare denigrates the nature of Jews in The Merchant of Venice, where the character Shylock is imbued with immoral traits of avarice, malice, and revenge. Othello is the Moor (Muslim) whose downfall results from his pride, jealousy, and lust. Catholic characters fare a bit better: priests, friars, monks, and nuns assume relatively virtuous and moral characters in Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, King John, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Real life dilemmas involving lusty youth, premarital sex, pregnancy, and eventual marriage have been around for centuries. Elizabethan England neither invented these problems nor found a solution to them. But just as today’s dramatic entertainment tends to focus on human licentiousness, so did the plays written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare’s audiences certainly enjoyed such stories as much as modern audiences today.
From which faction of society did Shakespeare draw the moral values espoused by the characters in Measure for Measure?
Shakespeare uses monasticism as a vehicle for exposing human paradoxes: good and evil, virtue and vice, truth and dishonesty, purity and corruption, humility and power, and persuasion and manipulation. Shakespeare’s characters make up the gambit of personalities described in the DSM-V Manual used today by mental health care professionals. In Measure for Measure, “the Duke spends most of his time dressed as a friar in order to observe what is happening in his absence. The Duke is unfailingly virtuous, good, and kind-hearted. He tends to rule too softly, which is why he enlists Angelo’s help”
(http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/measure/characters.html). Shakespeare undoubtedly bases his characters on the myriad types of people he encountered throughout his childhood in the country, and his adulthood in London, where he saw up close and personal those who personified “love, death, and everything in between.”
So, why did Shakespeare persist in his use of nuns and monks in so many of his plays? And how did he get away with it, in a political climate so hostile to Catholics, Jews, and Muslims?
The societal roles of monks and nuns were prevalent throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They worked hard to prevent or remedy social, moral, and religious ills. They tended to the ills of the homeless and the sick. The Black Plague (bubonic) descended upon England several times during Shakespeare’s lifetime; he would have witnessed the administrations of holy men and women with healing hands.
In Measure for Measure, the clergy are called upon further to right the abuses of the local authorities, particularly Antonio and Lucio, who act upon their lusts and commit the same sins they refuse to forgive legally. In fact, by the end of the play Shakespeare has reiterated his “deep skepticism about the long-term prospects for happiness in marriage” (Greenblatt, 136). Finally, the threat of death is the antithesis to the promise of love; those threatened with death (hanging and beheading) in this play are those who make love for the sake of love; and everything in between is lust and debauchery, making Measure for Measure among the most uncomfortable plots and themes written by the Bard.